Why do we express ourselves through our hair?
I pretend not to care much as I’m about to lose mine to chemotherapy drugs.
But I grew it long in my defiant (or was it compliant?) youth.
As a young assistant city editor supervising reporters who were older than my parents, I grew my first beard to sort-of cover up that baby face underneath.
Mimi liked the soft beard better than my five-o’clock shadow, so we had an accord for decades, as long as I’d shave my scraggly neck and keep the beard trimmed. For most of my 20s and 30s, I had a full head of hair (thick, but shorter than in my college days) and a full, if usually trimmed, beard.
Gray appeared in the beard long before it was noticeable higher up (there it’s still mostly brown). I began describing the beard as salt-and-pepper. But I had to admit salt was taking over the sideburns in the late 90s when my black-and-white photo (left) that ran with my religion column at the Des Moines Register made me look as though I had a goatee, as readers often commented upon meeting me, surprised to see the fuller, frostier hair on the sides.
My brothers, one older and one younger, started losing their hair earlier and faster than I did, as shown in a 2006 photo of us bowing our heads in a mock prayer for a cure for baldness.
My mother, who fueled my ego more than she deflated it in my youth, brought laughter and humility in the early years of her memory loss by suddenly noticing and exclaiming, more than she was asking, “Is your hairline receding?”
For a few years, Mimi would refer to my “bald spot” in back, but I could feel hair when I put my hand there, so I denied it, just as she kept telling our boys “I’m taller” as they shot up past her in adolescence. Occasional photographs from behind quieted my denials.
When I was a victim of age discrimination, I asked my attorney if I should shave the mostly white beard in looking for my next job. If we were going to sue, I’m sure she would have urged me to keep it. Since we weren’t, she didn’t have a legal opinion. But as a female friend, she said, yeah, I’d look younger. After I shaved, many others agreed.
When I found the job, I grew back a goatee, telling myself that part was still salt-and-pepper. But salt was winning. Eventually I grew the full beard back, embracing the white. But then vanity prevailed and the whole beard came off, even though I wasn’t looking for work (but it certainly stayed off when I had to start looking again).
Just when I was comfortable with shaving daily and accepting a slow retreat of my hair (it’s still thick where I have it), I’m facing two developments I can do little about:
- Chemo is killing my white blood cells, which fight infection. So I need to avoid nicks. So the beard is coming back, even those scraggly neck hairs Mimi always made me shave.
- Soon the beard will fall out, along with what’s left on top of my head and other hair you don’t want to know about, as the Cytoxan and other chemo drugs kill off my fast-dividing cells: primarily lymphoma and hair.
Mimi suggested that waiting to lose my hair would be depressing, not to mention clogging our drains and covering pillows. I briefly pondered whether I’d feel some connection to Roger Maris if I let my hair start falling out in clumps (the stress of his record 1961 season caused hair loss). But I knew I wouldn’t hit any homers. So Mimi took me to her stylist, Jason Keller, for a close buzz, rather than risking a shave.
So that’s my new look, scraggly beard, topped by my buzz cut where I still have hair. It will all fall out soon, but short enough to spare the drains and, hopefully, look less depressing on the pillowcases.
I hear it will grow back eventually, and that sometimes it grows back a different color or texture. More on that later.
In the meantime, I might express myself through my hats.
Feeling entirely self-indulgent, I did two video retrospectives. The one below is sort of a history of my hair. The one below the hat photos looks at my hair through four decades of weddings.